The medieval Tatev Monastery, seen here, is connected to the village of Halizor by the world's longest non-stop, double-track cable car. The “Wings of Tatev” stretches 5,752 meters above the Vorotan River Gorge.
Armenia – Been There

Moved to tears in an Armenian monastery

Photo by Carlo Bevilacqua

Armenia – Been There Moved to tears in an Armenian monastery

Sandwiched between the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed territory driving the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, and the Azeri exclave of Nakhchivan, Goris is less than an hour’s drive from Armenia’s heavily militarized borders.

Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton Travel Writer

Not that it is easy to tell. Sleepy and subdued, the 19th century stone houses of Goris, their thresholds shadowed by grapevines, feel worlds away from conflict. Around me, violently green cliffs rear up, breaking apart the blue monotony of sky.

Khachik Mirakyan, owner of what he proudly proclaims to be “the oldest bed and breakfast in Armenia”, is on hand, beaming, to greet me. I am not quite up to the social caliber of his first-ever guest – “the German ambassador,” he says with a wink – but I will have to do. He offers coffee, tea, cherry-tart wine he has made from the grapes that overhang the balcony, fresh orange slices and strawberries so impossibly red that tasting them feels dangerous.

He is pleased to learn I have come to see the nearby 9th century Tatev Monastery, one of the country's most famous churches, but more than a little dismayed to learn I plan to take the bus rather than walk the eight miles up to the summit.

By the time I arrive at Tatev, jostled between sacks of potatoes on a Soviet-era minibus, the brandy feels less welcome than it first did. But no sooner do I stumble down the dirt road leading to the monastery entrance than I am stopped, by Anna Arsharkyan: proprietress of the Tatev information center – and offered new sustenance: thyme-brewed tea, fresh biscuits studded with slices of fresh apple.

Of all Armenia’s monasteries, few have the sheer epic scope of Tatev. Perched on the edge of a basalt expanse, the cliff plunging only inches from the monastery’s edge, Tatev feels less like a man-made structure than like a natural outcropping of rock: its columns and archways carved out by the rain. The labyrinthine chambers twist and turn into one another; a few lead precariously to the cliff’s edge, where no railing separates the green of the earth from the whiteness of sky.

I enter the St Peter and Paul Church: the largest in the complex. The entry dome is intricately carved and each stone burnished. Inside, a young woman in white – I learn later that she is another visitor – begins to sing.

Her melancholy song echoes so diffusely off the dome that at first it is impossible to tell where the sound is coming from. The notes blend into one another; they echo and repeat until the whole church is filled with sound. The sounds move me to tears.

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